During quarantine, I shared multiple phone conversations with Marion boys cross country coach Eli Baker. His voice on the other end of those calls couldn’t have been filled with more excitement for his Wildcats roster consisting of 18 runners.
Many coaches believe ‘team depth’ may turn out to be an X factor during a shortened season. It was almost too fitting that the first cross country meet I covered this year came at the Harry L. Crisp Sports Complex, which had me excited for multiple reasons.
As I slammed my car door shut last Thursday evening, I was excited to see runners such as Marion’s Isaac Donaldson, Carbondale’s Tucker Poshard and Centralia’s Brooks Harlan after covering them when they were juniors. I had spoken with the trio throughout quarantine regarding the upcoming season, but soon after the starting pistol sounded, I learned they were all out nursing injuries.
This shifted some of my attention towards Wildcats runner Benja Stone, who Baker expressed was one of the best freshman runners in the area. Enough so that he’d compete at the top of any race no matter the competition. When I spoke with Donaldson regarding his teammates prior to the season, these were his words:
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“This Marion team has a very strong group of runners this year,” he said. “Our Top 7 runners have a very tight time spread, and I’m very excited to compete alongside them.
“We will be South Seven Conference champions this year.”
That statement stuck with me entering the Wildcat Fast Start after interviewing Poshard and Harlan, who planned on giving Donaldson and the Wildcats a run for their money — no pun intended. It was tough getting a clean read on the South Seven in the meet given that many schools were without some of their top runners; but one thing that did stand out, however, was Marion’s depth.
The Wildcats got an impressive third-place finish from freshman Dylon Nalley with the aforementioned Stone finishing fourth that day. Nalley and Stone were amongst Meyke Lomax (7th), Logan Morgan (8th), Cade Parks (10th) and Christopher LaChiana (11th), who helped lead Marion to a first place finish.
The final tally ended with Marion outscoring Carbondale by 43 points despite Terriers junior Alex Partlow’s blazing time of 15:57. The Wildcats depth proved to be the deciding factor like many coaches had predicted, leaving Baker thrilled with his team in the post race huddle.
“We’re used to having Isaac right up there with Benja, so there’s no doubt that he would have been a big help,” Baker told me after the race. “We luckily have enough depth that the team stepped up and filled some of those gaps without a problem.”
Baker’s roster is young, hungry and ready to push for conference titles in years to come.
Outside of their Top 6 runners, the Wildcats also ran eight junior-varsity kids during the varsity race with a delayed start. Their names are worth mentioning because Marion’s depth works like an NFL practice squad, one guy goes down and the next one steps up.
Baker’s J-V team includes: Jack Gregory, Gabe Kosco, Caleb Flesch, River Doss, Camden Doss, Peyton Odum, Gabriel Bradley and Zach Oates. They were all given the “Next Man Up” speech after the race from their coach, which was a point of emphasis Baker made on running during a pandemic.
Marion’s staff did a terrific job of enforcing mask wearing and social distancing to help protect future events. Baker would hop onto the intercom and remind runners to put their masks on after each race, and warn spectators that if they weren’t following health precautions then they’d be asked to leave.
I left Marion that day with two expectations moving forward. The first being that the Wildcats cross country team is no joke, and I fully expect them to compete for conference titles for as long as Baker remains coach.
The second being the high expectations Marion set for enforcing masks and social distancing. This is something I hope other schools can learn from and enforce to protect the safety of others to keep sports alive and well.
Braden Fogal covers prep sports for The Southern Illinoisan. Contact him at 618-351-5118 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.